Reflections on my time in Wester Hailes 1976-1990
by Laurence Demarco (July 2009)
‘Democracy can only be based on tiers of autonomy- on people trusting people who trust other people- a hierarchy of trusts. Westminster, Holyrood, Local Authority, the Community, the Citizen. Some say more power should accrue to the Holyrood tier- (the citizens of Scotland are still deliberating)- but the most serious democratic deficit in our country is at the level of our communities. For 50 years the Labour Party ruled Scotland like a one party state- with a centralism openly hostile to the devolution of power to communities. It is important to realise that the Wester Hailes story happened in the context of determined Labour municipalism.’
I was pleased to respond to the invitation to write about my time working in Wester Hailes (1976-1990) because it forced me to think about a period which had a major influence on my life. What follows is not an attempted critique – but selective and subjective memories. The passage above is the nearest I come to any theoretical perspective.
Revisiting my text I am struck by the number of things which I have failed to express. I have chosen not to mention anyone’s name for fear of missing out people- but this has the effect of exaggerating my own role. I have failed to communicate emotion- yet many of us felt passionate about these events- standing with the powerless against what we perceived as arrogant bureaucracy. I have failed to celebrate adequately the considerable achievements – how against determined opposition, local people created mechanisms which exercised real power. And I have failed to express my appreciation for those years. Whatever the effect may have been on the community, I know it was a profoundly empowering experience for me personally.
I was born in 1940 and left school aged 15 to work in the family fish and chip shop in Edinburgh. Apart from 2 years in a seminary, I stayed in business till I was 30- setting up several small enterprises- with mixed success. In 1973 I graduated from Moray House with a Diploma in Community Work and during 1974 and 1975 I led the development of Panmure House, a day centre for youngsters experiencing difficulties at home or in school. Panmure still operates.
In 1976 I was appointed by Lothian Regional Council as their lead community worker in Wester Hailes, a large new social housing estate still being completed. As Area Co-ordinator my job was to act as a bridge between local government and the community. My appointment had to be ratified by community activists in Wester Hailes, so I was interviewed again by 5 local women in a flat in Murrayburn. I remember being asked ‘Whose side are you on?’- I had never been asked this question so directly before. I tried to explain that things were more complex than that – but my explanation sounded like excuses – so I said ‘If it came to a choice between the Council and the community- I’d side with the community.’ I got the job. That incident stayed with me.
I was employed by the Council but had no desire for a career in local government so felt no pressure on that score. My pattern was to work at things flat out for 2 years- and then move on. The reason that I stayed in Wester Hailes for 14 years is that I really enjoyed it. The bond I formed with people during those years- residents and colleagues, made it one of the most rewarding periods of my life.
3. First Three Basics
In October 1976 when I set up office in a flat at 16/4 Murrayburn Place, there were two local local authorities- the Region and the District. These two Councils, and all the other statutory bodies, used between them around 30 different boundaries and names for Wester Hailes- the first task was to define the area as an actual place where people belonged. I persuaded an artist friend to draw a map of Wester Hailes, in cartoon form, identifying every single dwelling. This was very well received- universally adopted- amended over the years.
Ghandi once said that one cannot unite a community without a newspaper or journal of some sort. A local man had produced several editions of a newsletter called the Sentinel. I helped develop this into a monthly free sheet distributed around the doors (circa 7,000). The printed word has a surprising impact- particularly on public officials. Over the years the Sentinel proved one of the key elements in the empowerment of the community.
In 1976, community action in Wester Hailes was already 6 years old and several neighbourhoods had formed representative groups. The time was right for the emergence of an overall Wester Hailes coordinating body which people trusted enough to lend their authority. I spent a lot of time in people’s houses talking and talking- trying to build concensus. Local activists were determined that their representative body should be as independent as possible from outside influences- like the remoteness of local government officialdom- or the partisan interests of professional politicians. The achievement of a unified independent voice was the Wester Hailes community’s most telling achievement. This voice found its fullest expression in what eventually became the Wester Hailes Representative Council.
4. The Venchie
The politicans and officials responsible for Wester Hailes, failed to make provision for even the most basic social facilities where folk could meet and congregate. This lack proved a major barrier to the emergence of a community spirit. Through job creation schemes, local people learned the skills to move and rebuild transportable units from schools around the region- and this proved a breakthrough. The physical hub of our activities became a central vacant site in Hailesland Place (earmarked for a future old folk’s home) which we gradually commandeered. Bit by bit it evolved as a shanty town of ramshackle buildings around a very popular adventure playground called the Venchie.
Without fuss or bureaucracy, buildings went up- were extended- a fluid system, adaptable like lego. If we’d waited for all the official permissions and documents it would never have happened; we depended on pockets of goodwill from free spirited individuals in Council departments- Planning, Building Control etc. Bold and delinquent , these physical structures came to symbolise the enterprise and determination of the community to take control of its own future. A sense of adventure – defiance ‘we’ll show them.’ Collectively, the encampment was known as the Community Workshop and at one stage around 40 local organisations were housed there.
‘The Workshop’ became the gathering point for hundreds of local people – where a core culture of ‘community’ caught alight. Sitting chatting in the Café Venchie, person by person, folk were invited to join in. Whether volunteers or workers, most of us were looking for something to believe in – to belong to- to give our lives more meaning. Every few weeks a new organisation started up- it didn’t much matter whether it was about child care- or allotments – or ear piercing. People were on the move. It is worth recording that the overwhelming majority if our recruits were women – a huge unused creativity in our communities just waiting to be released.
5. Going Local
Once the community workshop and its facilities had reached capacity our vision widened to create a similar hub in each of the estate’s 7 distinct neighbourhoods. Clovenstone, Hailesland and the Calders already had dedicated community buildings of some kind or another, so we focused our efforts on constructing (and manning) community bases at Westburn, Park & Drive, Murrayburn and Dumdryden.
There are stories to be told (some hilarious, some sad) about how each of these hubs evolved – important lessons at the very heart of how a shared sense of community forms- or doesn’t. I think more than anything I learned the importance of leadership- how someone has to respresent (personify) where we’re all trying to go- generous individuals with their ego well parked.
During my time in Wester Hailes I was lucky to have 5 weeks in the USA to look at similar community developments. One of the main things I learned was that blocks of social housing with 12 thousand residents simply don’t exist over there. People were incredulous at the scale of Scottish social housing estates. I returned with the idea of subdividing Wester Hailes into villages- managed to convince local people and the ‘powers that be’ to invest in a pilot. Over several years the Neighbourhood Strategy offered local residents the opportunity to define ‘their bit’ and form a neighbourhood Council. At one stage there were 30 active local groups – but this settled down at around 20. Annual elections attracted very high turnouts. Each of the neighbourhood Councils fed into the unifying Wester Hailes representative Councils. It was a model of representative democracy which Professor Alan McGregor called the most impressive in the UK.
6. Treasure Island
As more and more volunteers got involved the range of activities widened, eventually there was hardly any department of the statutory agencies which wasn’t working with local people on something or other. Elected Councillors referred to Wester Hailes ironically as ‘Treasure Island.’ We were trying to put in place networks of local services truly responsive to people’s needs whatever their circumstances.
One of my favourite examples was the Wester Hailes Management Agency which offered a large number of jobs/ training places via the Community Programme. Managed by local people, the Agency has a deliberate policy of offering places to youngsters from families with most problems. Through this activity, and that of the extensive Youth Programme, local adults were in touch with all the youngsters on the streets. Street gangs never took hold in Wester Hailes. Young people going up to court were accompanied- ‘Patient’ loans made available for fines. The message was ‘you’re part of this community and we all look after each other.’
After giving a talk recently I was approached by a woman in her 30s who remembered me from Wester Hailes. I recognised her name as one of the ‘tougher’ families- she recounted her chaotic history; kicked out of the house at 16- drugs- rough sleeping etc. In prison she thought about skipping school aged 14- hanging around the Venchie- the Café- sharing a fag and a cup of tea with various workers. She realised that the folk at the Venchie and the Café and the school all spoke to each other. She understood that there was a connected supportive network watching over her. She understood community. She told me that she had gone on to college and was now a practising youth worker. And so it goes on.
I didn’t know the term ‘social capital’ in those days but now I find it a valuable way to understand and to express what we were trying to do – to build.
7. Doing the Business
The present attention paid by Government to Social Enterprise might suggest that it’s a new thing- but the idea of trading for social purposes has been going on in Scottish communities for as long as I can remember. Certainly from the outset the Wester Hailes community showed a considerable appetite for developing property- for commercial as well as social uses. Thousands of sq ft of shops and workshops were built in community ownership – some to be operated directly- most to be leased to house services missing in the estate- like solicitors, vet, tradesmen etc. In all the TV Soaps, the heart of the community is invariably the local pub- and Wester Hailes was much diminished by the lack of such. The social and commercial success of the community operated social club was an important symbol of the growing confidence.
The property development operation was fairly sophisticated; an inventory was made of all vacant land with its potential for commercial development; an inhouse design unit was created with architects, planners etc; the inhouse building company, though restricted by being a training programme- nevertheless achieved impressive capacity.
The vision was of a community owning land – developing and managing property – creating trading enterprises to fill gaps in local service provision – and through these activities achieving a level of self-reliance. The main problem was that those responsible for running Edinburgh –elected members and public servants alike – were united in their opposition to this model.
Reflecting on this period I have two thoughts. In Scotland’s housing estates the local Council typically owns every brick and every blade of grass. Though not as bad as Edinburgh, most Councils remain to be convinced of the Wester Hailes model of development. My second thought is that we failed to link commercial development and potential profit to the local democratic structure. Someone said ‘let democracy be the first philanthropy.’ I would now argue that any independent income a community can achieve should firstly be used to protect its tier of democracy from the uncertainties of external funding. We failed to connect all the bits together – so that the profit generating activities remain unattached to local democracy.
8. The Gyle and the Sack
I lost my job as the Lothian Region’s man in Wester Hailes through opposing the development of the West Edinburgh Shopping Centre, now known as The Gyle. The residents of Wester Hailes felt, quite rightly that the The Gyle development would be a death blow to the already weakened Wester Hailes Centre. The Rep Council gave very strong evidence to this effect to the 1985 public enquiry – spelling out the potential damage to the local economy and morale. This evidence is a matter of public record. In the event the impact on Wester Hailes, of West Edinburgh retail development, is worse than the bleakest 1985 predictions. The Reporter imposed conditions on the Council (as developer of the Gyle) to protect Wester Hailes from anticipated impact. Some of these conditions have been disregarded and it would be interesting to raise an action against the Council as developer.
But it wasn’t my involvement in presenting evidence to the planning enquiry which angered my employer- it was our proposal to situate the new shopping centre actually in Wester Hailes. Although this sounds preposterous now- it was taken very seriously at the time. In a bold move, the community purchased ‘a ransom strip’ of land from Barretts, who were trying to develop private housing at Westburn. We assembled a team of architects, surveyors, lawyers, planners- prepared a blueprint to develop the equivalent of The Gyle off the bypass at Westburn and submitted a planning application. A senior civil servant came to see us- direct from the Secretary of State- to say that if we could find a credible developer- our proposal was a serious option. The Tory government’s pet policy at that time was regeneration through private sector investment and the Scottish Office led Wester Hailes Partnership was getting ready to roll.
I got a letter from my boss telling me to disassociate from this project- or else. But I had long ago ‘gone native’ and resigned from the Council. As it turned out we couldn’t confirm a developer in time- our bid failed but all was not in vain. The Council agreed that if we would withdraw our application they would agree to support the ongoing transfer of land and buildings to the community through the new Land and Property Trust. Not many people know that story, but it deserves to be recorded because it’s the reason Edinburgh Council were persuaded to support the transfer of assets to community ownership in Wester Hailes.
9. The Partnership
When my employment with Lothian Regional ended in October ’88, I took up post as the initial CEO of the Land and Property Trust- just carried on as before; I remained in this post until the Spring of 1990 when I left Wester Hailes for pastures new. This, my final period, coincided with the arrival of the Wester Hailes Partnership, which proved so destructive to much of what had been achieved. I’m not suggesting that I foresaw the dangers of the Partnership- I was as guilty as anyone of being seduced by the prospect of serious investment; but it soon became clear that a new script was being written- and I wasn’t in it. I believe we owe it to what came before, to place on the record some of the real consequences of the Partnership.
For 10 years- from 1988 to 1998- Wester Hailes was one of the 4 areas chosen by the Scottish Office for its New Life for Urban Scotland Programme. Wester Hailes was chosen because of the effective community infrastructure outlined above- a decade of pains- taking community development bearing fruit. Over 10 years the Partnership invested £120 million in the area- and when the funding ended, the community’s independent structures were fatally damaged- have now virtually disappeared. The local people gave their trust to a process which neither supported nor even understood community empowerment.
It could have been so different. What if some of the millions had been used to endow a Development Trust? – a permanent, locally owned regeneration engine: to develop property- train and employ local people- set up trading businesses to fill market gaps- dozens of community enterprises with local directors and employees- a culture of entrepreneurship and independence. The partnership could have left a permanent legacy. New life for Wester Hailes – instead it extinguished what life was already there.
Looking back at what was built through community action in Wester Hailes – and its subsequent unravelling- it is clear that we were doing something wrong. If those achievements, and the values underpinning them, had truly been owned by local people- they would not so easily have disappeared. It must be that along the way we allowed the excitement of our projects to distract us from our true task- the process of empowerment. For a community worker like me this was a serious error of judgement which I regret. I would do it differently next time.
Apart from that, I believe our basic model was right. A healthy body politic needs a tier of decision making below that of local government. An effective community needs its own autonomous representative and operational mechanisms- to take control of its future. Much of the Wester Hailes story remains an example of how this can be achieved.
Over ten years community leaders built and operated a local infrastructure which engaged with thousands of residents. The vision was of independent local democracy- supported by trading activity- developing a caring community, with first rate services. This momentum was ambushed and destroyed by the arrival of the Partnership – an alternative vision of development led by public and private sector activity- with £100m to spend.
Before the arrival of the Partnership, the community was in the lead. Gradually public sector officials and consultants took over. When the Partnership left, Edinburgh Council (surely the most centralist in Scotland) continued the dismantling; the distinct identity of Wester Hailes- so carefully differentiated, was systematically unpicked. The boundaries, the newspaper, the structures, the funding- merged with West Edinburgh- back into the indifference and anonymity of municipal bureaucracy.
Even now in Wester Hailes there are two locally owned institutions which have the potential capacity to revive local democracy. Both Prospect Housing Association and the Land and Property Trust (LPT) are financially independent of local government- although the independence of their governance is less clear.
Some commentators say that the UK is now moving into a decade of financial stringency- and that the present level of services can only be maintained with much more direct involvement from citizens and communities. It may be that the Wester Hailes model will emerge out of necessity – and that some of the lessons outlined in this book will be helpful for those designing the future.